Saturday, 28 January 2012

Apicentric Beekeeping

Most people are aware that our honey bees have undergone a significant decline in the past decade, and many factors have been attributed to this. I have had my own bees since April 2009 and was taught the 'traditional' method of hive management, namely, that the beekeeper knows best and needs to manipulate the bees' behaviour in order to produce the maximum amount of honey. I'm not saying that conventional beekeeping techniques harm the bees directly or that their owners don't care, but as with many commercial farming practises, it has taken its toll on the health of the organisms concerned.

The Natural Beekeeping Trust are endeavouring to change this approach, and today I went to an event at their Bee Classroom in Ashurst Wood, Sussex to find out about the different hive systems that can be used. I currently use a National which is a square box full of frames that can be inspected and harvested effeciently and easily, but it is not necessarily the conditions that the bees would choose to live in!

We looked at a number of different hives:

Einraumbeute or One Room Hive

Top Bar Hive

Warre Hive (sitting atop a painted National!)

The new Sun Hive
It was really interesting and a lot of emphasis was made on how the bees work very hard to maintain a temperature of 38 degrees C (as do mammals) within the hive, and our opening them up on a regular basis does much to disrupt this. It also introduces spores and other nasties to what should essentially be a sealed unit - sealed by the bees that is with a substance called propolis, which acts as an antimicrobial and anti-fungal glue to patch up any holes and pockets where infection could enter and to keep light and draughts out. Bees naturally nest high up in trees and in bringing them down to our level exposes them to cold and moisture from the ground that they would not normally have to deal with. This is before other 'essential' beekeeping measures have taken place; I will be spending a lot more time observing my bees and enabling them to express their natural instincts rather than diving in to the hive every week thinking I know what they should be doing...

The trustees who took the course were very inspirational and I would urge anyone reading my blog to try to make sure they purchase local, ethically produced honey, preferably early in the season so the bees have a chance to recoup their stores before winter, as standard practice is to strip the hive of honey in late summer and feed the bees sugar syrup to replenish their supplies. I don't think this is fair! I always leave enough honey for them to overwinter with and although I do sell the honey from my hives, I keep a decent amount back to ensure that I can feed them their own honey (slightly diluted) should the need arise. Such honey does command a higher price, but you will be supporting a sustainable and vitally important process: investing in bee colonies that will be provided with the resources to live long, productive and healthy lives.

I do hope my colonies make it through the winter as I am keen to see how they fare on less intervention over the summer. I will have to wait a few more months before they get going, and that depends on their Varroa load which unfortunately is high. Fingers crossed I will have some bees to watch come April.


  1. Fascinating post! I'd love to keep bees one day....

  2. Thank you! The top bar or Warre hives allow the bees to go about their business but from which some honey can be harvested when there is a surplus, plus they have viewing windows so you can observe them up close without disturbing them. It doesn't require any special knowledge or extra equipment and your fruit crops will thank you for it :-)